Anne Fontaine: interview

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It's not easy forging your way as a woman in a man's world – whether that is the world of fashion or film. Actor-turned-director Anne Fontaine, whose latest work is the handsome Coco Chanel biopic, 'Coco Before Chanel', tells Nina Caplan how it's done

Did you always intend to move from acting into directing?
‘I didn’t even choose to be an actress. I was a dancer but a director saw me in a ballet, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, when I was 17. I became an actress but quite quickly realised I didn’t like it. I was so used to being in control of everything – my body, my movements – so I began to write. I thought that if I wrote a script someone else could direct it, but eventually I realised it would never happen unless I did it myself. My first film won a prize at Cannes; I was lucky, I had no technical knowledge, but I knew how to direct actors because I had been one.’

Why Chanel?
‘I knew her last assistant, who lived with her for 15 years. I particularly like that she was an autodidact, as I am. I have admired her character – her determination and ambition – since I was young: it’s rare for people to escape the world they’re born into, but she did.’

Was it a deliberate decision not to sentimentalise – not make the clothes too pretty, the romance too sugary?
‘Yes. She was not sentimental. She noticed everything but preferred to hide her tragedies, never talk of the past. Her clothes were the same – they were not about what had been done before. You don’t actually want to be too faithful to the time: otherwise it looks old-fashioned. Chanel was modern – she made her own time look out of date.’

You use some of her original clothes; weren’t you tempted to use more?
‘But there weren’t any! These were the clothes she made to wear, before she got famous. She started making them because she found the clothes of the time very restrictive. Also she was very thin, with no figure really, so she had to invent a way to dress differently and still look good. The simplicity and austerity of her style was partly because she had grown up in an orphanage – she designed a uniform. But she never intended to be a designer. She wanted to be an actress or a singer.’

Chanel’s lover, Boy Capel, was terribly English – and largely responsible for Chanel’s lifelong Anglophilia. So why choose an American actor (Alessandro Nivola) to play him?
'Because the English actors who could have played the role either didn’t speak enough French or were afraid they wouldn’t be good speaking French. It is very hard to act in another language. And I knew Alessandro could do an English accent because he had already done so in a film with Kenneth Branagh ("Love’s Labours Lost").'

Why is there such a fuss about Chanel right now?
‘I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a fuss before. There have been attempts: Audrey Tatou has been contacted two or three times but she didn’t like the scripts. I can’t explain why it’s happening now. But Chanel lived 87 years, so there are many stories that could make films from different parts of her life.’

Is the experience of a woman working in a man’s world something that you have in common with Chanel?
‘Yes. The film industry has become more democratic than when I started in 1993 but women directors are still the minority. Although it’s better in France than in the rest of Europe, simply because we get more financial help from the state. But it’s still the case that if a man asks for time to make a decision he’s thinking; if a woman does, she’s hesitating. You need charisma, but also humility. Chanel had both: she invented a style, gave women liberty but always considered herself an artisan. That interested me – it’s a combination to aspire to.’

Read our review of 'Coco Before Chanel'

Author: Interview: Nina Caplan



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